CM . . .
. Volume XXI Number 36. . . .May 22, 2015
Twisted History is presented in three sections, but the boundaries between the categories are rather arbitrary. The first part, “Treachery & Torture”, demonstrates that even people who commit treasonous acts are complex individuals who may have been convinced that they were justified in their actions and may have served their nation loyally for a long time before changing sides. The section includes biographies of 10 men arranged chronologically and extending back in time to Brutus, “who murdered his friend and ally Julius Caesar”, to Lavrentiy Beria, one of Stalin’s henchmen who executed political opponents with delight. The subjects are all from Europe with the exception of Benedict Arnold, the American turncoat whose treachery during the American War of Independence brought him infamy despite the long career that he once held in the service of the American colonies. Watson incorporates a great deal of information into the short entries but sometimes tends to employ a style and vocabulary that will likely be beyond a teenage readership. The book is really most suited to adult readers. Younger readers will be captivated by some of the details: how a person (William Wallace, Scottish patriot) was hanged, drawn, and quartered, how the medieval torture rack operated, the perverse sexual crimes of alleged pedophile and serial murder Gilles de Rais of 15th century France, the degree of cruelty of Vlad III of Wallachia, known for impaling some 80,000 Ottomans and whose name Dracula later inspired literary reinvention as a vampire. One of the strengths of the writing is Watson’s willingness to balance claims of depravity written by the victors of wars with known positives, such as Richard III’s significant judicial reforms. Watson explains how literary writers like Shakespeare have helped to shape the impressions people have of historical figures like Richard III.
The section includes more Catholic martyrs: Thomas More who refused to betray his faith and was executed at Henry VIII’s orders, and René Goupil, “the first American saint, who was tortured and martyred by Native Americans in the seventeenth century.” Mahatma Gandhi and Martin Luther King, Jr. who peacefully advocated for radical changes in India and the United States were both assassinated. The twentieth century’s largest scale religious-based genocide is undoubtedly the Holocaust, and two key figures are deservedly included in this volume: Adolf Hitler and Adolf Eichmann. Eichmann is in the first section but perhaps would be best placed in the second section with Hitler. The most unusual inclusion is that of Bernie Madoff whose financial scams are the largest to date in U.S. history. Perhaps this choice will help to give white-collar crime more recognition, but it cannot compete for salaciousness with gruesome mass murder and genocidal malevolence.
Val Ken Lem is the History, English, and Caribbean studies liaison librarian at Ryerson University in Toronto, ON.
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Copyright © the Manitoba Library Association. Reproduction for personal use is permitted only if this copyright notice is maintained. Any other reproduction is prohibited without permission.